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The coronavirus infection rate is currently slowing down in Georgia to only several a day (with an occasional exception), and this is about four weeks after Easter, during which some churches insisted on still holding services and had us all biting our nails. Travel restrictions are being lifted, and the government has penciled in June 8 as the day restaurants with outdoor seating can reopen. We just don’t know what conditions will be imposed on everyone. Will waitstaff and clients have to wear masks? How many people per table? Will khinkali be served in individual portions instead of on a huge communal platter? There are lots of questions, perhaps the biggest being, “Who will survive?”

Five years ago, Ezo opened its doors in a Sololaki courtyard apartment, serving home-styled recipes from organically grown produce, and became one of the neighborhood’s best-kept secrets let out of the bag. Business grew, not just at Ezo, which added tables in their tucked-away courtyard, but throughout Sololaki – restaurants, bars and cafés popped up as tourists began to arrive in dramatically rising numbers.

Mounting popularity was certainly a blessing for Ezo’s owners, Kristo Talakhadze and Gio Lomsadze, but there were also growing pains to contend with. Some menu changes worked, others did not. Expanding the seating meant trying to find the right staff to accommodate the number of patrons; no easy feat anywhere, but particularly challenging in Georgia, whose tradition of restaurant service is only beginning. But Ezo persevered and found its stride, becoming “that cool place with the homey courtyard.” Good luck finding better pork chops.

Winter is a tough season for all restaurants but in Georgia, which goes on a national binge throughout December and January, they all but hibernate when February comes around. As 2019 turned into 2020, Ezo closed its doors on weekdays. And then came corona.

While we were still going out and mocking the virus that had shut Italy down with toasts to health, Ezo shut its own doors indefinitely, one of the first restaurants to do so voluntarily.

“Our healthcare system is not prepared for what is about to happen,” Kristo had said with the wisdom of a savant (Kristo also moonlights as a Culinary Backstreets walk leader). Pandemics never happen at a good time. In Ezo’s case, it arrived just as they completed a three-year operation strategy. It was going to be a big year for Ezo.

Being open for delivery and takeout was not really an option, as much of their organic produce is sourced from small farmers scattered throughout the country. They would need considerable volume to make it worthwhile, or find alternative non-organic sources, which is contrary to everything Ezo stands for. Moreover, local delivery services take an 18-30 percent cut of the orders, Kristo explains, which makes little sense when their food cost is around 40 percent.

“Ezo isn’t just about food. It has always been about the community atmosphere, which you can’t really sell by delivery,” Kristo says.

Kristo and Gio look at June 8 with a bit of cautious skepticism, and that’s on an optimistic day. They don’t have the capital to reopen and so far, neither local banks nor the government are offering viable solutions to help small businesses. “We really don’t know what will happen,” Kristo concedes. “Who will have money to go out?”

The local rumor mill is buzzing with stories of restaurants closing down. But people are also itching to escape from the house, and dining out is the national pastime. Ezo has the perfect courtyard and two owners under no illusions that things will get back to normal. “We have to adapt to the new reality,” Kristo says.

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